Why repressive, corrupt governments fear freedom of speech

People don’t realise what a great power freedom of speech is. There is a reason why during freedom struggle various newspapers and journals were banned, writers and poets were arrested and films were censored. As a professional content writer, I can easily say that what you say and what you write can change the destiny of your country. Remember how single-handedly Arun Shourie dismantled the Rajiv Gandhi government? He was not a politician. He didn’t belong to a powerful organisation. He simply wrote. He simply let people know, through his words, what a scam the government ran. The government was so alarmed once that they threatened Ramnath Goenka that the Indian Express building would be demolished if he didn’t expel Arun Shourie from the newspaper.

For those who vouch for the freedom in the west, you can read about how severely western countries are pursuing Julian Assange, to an extent of mounting an attack on the Nicaraguan embassy when the fugitive whistleblower took shelter there. Why? Because he is bringing the nasty secrets of these, the so-called “free” countries to the aam admi.

Freedom of speech, of course doesn’t mean broadcasting and communicating every sort of balderdash. You may have your own definition, but when I speak of freedom of speech, it means letting people know the truth. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you abuse people and threaten them, as people are wont to indulge in on the Internet.

The problem in our country is, people don’t read much. They are not well informed. They have biases but no opinions, and the government intends to maintain the status quo.

The overbearing backwardness, hunger and illiteracy in India can be attributed to the inertia of the people who can actually do something about these ills. There is a vast vote bank that, despite being illiterate and ill informed, can sway the politics of the country, but there is also another chunk that has the wherewithals to become politically aware and gain knowledge, and consequently, change the political equation. Sadly, this big chunk of population is either indifferent or too bogged down. Again, the government would like to maintain the status quo.

Up till now, the government had been successfully able to black out a certain section of opinion by planting its henchmen in accademia, news journalism and literature. This is another example of how an entire country can be relegated to a lasting torpor by a constant bombardment of one-sided opinion. When the British were here they had no choice but to curb freedom of speech, but when they left, our indigenous rulers orchestrated a gargantuan band of dubious scholars whose only job was to brainwash the public. It’s not that alternative opinion didn’t exist – again, people like Arun Shourie published their own work – but these voices were scattered and scarce. Even among common public there were many people who were forming their own opinions, but they had no medium to broadcast their views.

The Internet changed the equation. Publication and exchange of ideas became democratised. You could start a blog, get an audience and you could challenge the biggest journalists in the country. Imagine people openly proving motivated historians like Romila Thapar wrong in pre-Internet days.

With the Internet, and an affordable connectivity, you could refute the claims, you could publish facts that would utterly demolish the claims of the so-called learned ones, and if you thought they were trying to mislead the public, you could start your own campaign. In order to build an audience people would interact on other blogs, many international, and in this way some blogs began to get thousands of views every day.

The UPA government, primarily consisting of the Congress, was rattled by the popularity and impact of blogs. This is a party that feeds on ignorance and intellectual obfuscation. That is why, as soon as it came to power, it tried to block the prevalent blogging platforms. It assumed people would meekly protest and things would be back to normal. It failed to realize people had actually tasted freedom of speech and unless brute force is used, they are not going to give up easily. It retreated.

But still, blogging requires lots of effort. You need to maintain a blog, you need to get an audience, you need to engage that audience and the content has to be compelling on a consistent level. The commenting sections of various popular blogs did solve the purpose to an extent, they were not as engaging as Twitter and Facebook.

That’s why people immediately took to these new platforms, and just within a few years, millions of people all over the world started posting their views and responding to others’ views on a daily, rather, hourly basis. A great thing about social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook is that they are great information broadcasting tools. Got a link you’d like to share with your friends, family and peers? Post it on Twitter and Facebook. Want to add a bit of commentary? Post it on Tumblr. Have a video you think people should see? Upload it on YouTube.

Two things repressive and corrupt governments fear: easy access to “right” or contrarian information, and quick dissemination of that information. The Internet in general and Twitter in particular, achieve both.

Another salient feature is that people themselves can report from their phones. For instance a renowned journalist was spreading misinformation about the riot situation in a small city. Someone from that city immediately tweeted and said the situation on the ground was totally different. Obviously people believed that person. And a few more echoing the same chain of thoughts from the same city.

When communication becomes easier, when flow of information in unfettered, the corrupt government and its henchmen and women cannot mislead people. Brainwashing is no longer possible.

Hence, under one pretext or another, the government tries to create barriers. It takes down websites (in the garb of maintaining communal harmony) and it blocks social networking profiles of people who try to expose its various acts of omission and commission.